By Michael Hernandez
WASHINGTON (AA) - The US sought Thursday to soothe over a French uproar caused by the Biden administration's decision to strike a submarine deal with Australia that left a previous French contract on the cutting room floor.
The agreement to provide Australia with sensitive nuclear submarine technology alongside the UK was made after the three nations struck a trilateral security pact that is focused on bolstering their domestic capabilities and improving their interoperability.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that rather than being an affront to Europe and France, the creation of AUKUS, as the group is formally known, "is a signal that we are committed to working with our allies and partners, including in Europe, to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific."
"France, in particular, is a vital partner on this and so many other issues stretching back generations, and we want to find every opportunity to deepen our transatlantic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and around the world," the top diplomat said after meeting with his Australian counterpart and the US and Australian defense ministers in Washington.
"We welcome European countries playing an important role in the Indo-Pacific. We look forward to continued close cooperation with NATO, with the European Union and with others in this endeavor," he added.
Blinken said the US had been in contact with Paris before the decision to help Australia build a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines was made public on Wednesday.
Nonetheless, France has reacted strongly against the announcement, which sees Australia abandon a multi-billion dollar contract to acquire French-designed diesel-powered submarines, describing it as a "regrettable decision."
Top French government officials emphasized that the move “reinforces the need to raise the issue of European strategic autonomy loud and clear.”
In a joint statement, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Florence Parly, the French ministers for foreign affairs and the armed forces, said the US’ decision led to the “exclusion of a European ally and partner…at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.”
They said the move “signals a lack of consistency which France can only notice and regret" and is “contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation which prevailed between France and Australia, based on a relationship of political trust.”
The decision to form AUKUS comes as China becomes increasingly assertive in the Indo-Pacific, and while none of the three nations have explicitly said it is geared at countering Beijing in the region, several officials emphasized China's "destabilizing activities" there.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the defense and foreign ministers discussed "China’s destabilizing activities and Beijing’s efforts to coerce and intimidate other countries contrary to established rules and norms."
"While we seek a constructive and results-oriented relationship with the PRC, we will remain clear-eyed in our view of Beijing’s efforts to undermine the established international order," he said, referring to the People's Republic of China.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne further said that Beijing has so far rejected bilateral outreach on several official levels even as Canberra has "been very consistent" in stating its desire to "to have constructive engagement with China."
"Dialogue is constructive. Dialogue enables the airing of any difference, the ventilating of any concerns. And so we would continue to encourage that. I regret that is consistently not taken up," she said. "It seems to me that mature actors would consider that in a constructive way.”